Budnitz is an inspirational writer. She doesn’t deal in fuzzy platitudes or Zen koans, or clever metaphors about life and dessert foods. The short stories collected in Nice Big American Baby are about prejudice and desperation, murderous friends and cancer patients and the dull old politics of cruelty. The characters are loving, selfish, heroic and petty in equal and ever changing measure. They’re also desperately alive, actors in world of drama and magic.
The magic is not flashy. There are no wands or dragons and singing fairies. But the magic is here, lurking behind dressers and in piano keys, in a woman’s womb and a swimming pool. Or perhaps not. With the exception of the title story, most of the strange happenings here can be explained with psychiatry or sociology, or dismissed as hyperbole. Much of it could stand as nothing more than a representation of how the actors in each tale feel, and their own subjective interpretations of quite dull circumstances. One of the most powerful stories, “Immersion”, involves nothing magical at all, just a pool, prejudice, and the native surrealism of childhood. Those few ingredients and 19 pages create a visceral shock more expected from a graphic war documentary Budnitz’s wisdom is in letting those stories stand without explanation, reminders that the mundane is the magical, and our own interpretation forever the one that matters.
It would be easy to draw cynicism from many of these tales. Justice is rarely served, and Budnitz focuses often on the small and weak in her player’s lives. But they are lives, desperate, passionate, sometimes casually cruel or horribly misguided, but real lives. And, even in the most fantastic circumstances, these are people who shape their world through their actions. As the mothers of the Nice Big American Baby could testify, the ending may be tragic, but the journey is always courageous.